My Top Autobiographies for World Book Day

Tomorrow, it’s World Book Day – a day which I looked forward to as much as, if not more than, non-uniform days when I was at primary school. World Book Day brings back memories of childhood favourites such as Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry, Michael Bond’s Paddington and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox; of dressing up as a character from a book for the day; and of eagerly exchanging book tokens for exclusive World Book Day books. These days, I’m more likely to be found with my nose in a crime thriller or an autobiography, so in honour of World Book Day, I’ve decided to devote a post to a handful of autobiographies that I’ve enjoyed over the past month or so.

Unscripted: My Ten Years in Telly – Alan Sugar

Alan Sugar never fails to crack me up with his cutting one-liners on The Apprentice, and this hilarious behind-the-scenes account of the show and its spin-offs was no exception. Candidates from Series 1 to 10 must have been cringing as all their bumbles and blunders were neatly wrapped up and repackaged in hardback form. Unscripted: My Ten Years in Telly is full of quips and bloopers which didn’t make the final cut, insights into how the show is actually filmed and Lord Sugar’s opinions on the candidates he hired and fired over the years. Memories of episodes past came flooding back, page by page, and I was in tears of laughter by the end.

A Year in Provence – Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence sat on my TBR list for an embarrassingly long time: three years, in fact. Fortunately, it more than lived up to expectations when I eventually got round to reading it. Peter Mayle paints an insightful and amusing portrait of life in rural France, complete with tales of truffle hunting and other local pursuits, entire passages devoted to culinary delights and comically accurate descriptions of nightmarish bureaucracy. (Funny to think that their baffling bureaucracy hasn’t changed one jot since Mayle’s book was published in 1989.) If you’ve ever experienced la vie française in all its glory for yourself, this book is bound to entertain.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Aged 36, Paul Kalanithi was on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, and a prestigious career as a surgeon-scientist beckoned. Cruelly, the future that he and his wife had planned for was snatched away from them when he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Kalanithi’s poignant memoir chronicles his journey from medical student and aspiring neurosurgeon to terminally-ill patient and new father. Musings on the intersection of medicine and morality are threaded through the narrative, illuminating the dilemmas that neurosurgeons face as the essence of their patient’s spirit and personality is laid bare on the operating table before them. In courageously exposing his own mortality, he brings readers towards an understanding of what life means to them; of what makes it worth living.

Anything to Declare? – Jon Frost

I don’t often go to the library with a book in mind; I tend to just see what takes my fancy when browsing the shelves. Anything to Declare? was one such book – and it was an absolute corker. Who knew that life as a HM Customs Officer could be so exciting? (Their faces at border control certainly don’t give anything away.) Jon Frost has come across everything in the line of duty; this is a world in which pigs (or rather, joints of ham) do fly, and nothing is unbelievable. He’s seen suitcases full of every drug known to man (and a few more besides), a monkey concealed in a coat and nuns trying to pass gin off as water. He’s seized undisclosed firearms, explosives and a working tank. He’s searched bags, bodies and coffins. If you’ve got something to declare (or even if you’d like to pretend you haven’t), rest assured that HM Customs will find it, wherever it may be. If you’re in need of a bundle of laughs or a pick-me-up, this book will deliver.

I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb

Before reading I Am Malala, I knew very little about Pakistan – or indeed the surrounding nations – and what I did know was based on Homeland, Loin de Chez Nous, which is set just across the Afghan-Pakistan border, and news reports of corruption, radicalisation and terrorism. When the Taliban seized control of the Swat Valley, Malala fought for her right to an education and came close to paying the ultimate price. Blending the political history of her war-torn homeland with insights into Pashtun customs, traditions and values, Malala provides an eye-opening account of life under the watchful eye of the Taliban. Both insightful and inspiring, Malala’s memoir is proof that it takes just one person to be the voice of change; and that the pen is mightier than the sword.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist – David Attenborough

I usually devour books in a handful of train rides, but I wanted to savour this one, rather than demolish it over the course of a single weekend. I’ve only read ‘Zoo Quest to Guyana’, but I’m already hooked – in fact, I was sold the moment I unwrapped it. Adventures of a Young Naturalist documents Attenborough’s expeditions in search of rare, unusual and often mischievous creatures across Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay for the BBC show Zoo Quest. Encounters with everything from cannibal fish (which we now know as piranhas) and caiman to two-toed sloths and tree porcupines are interspersed with captivating tales of tribal customs. I found this just as enchanting to read as Planet Earth was to watch, and I’m already looking forward to digging into ‘Zoo Quest for a Dragon’.

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